ProgBlog

By ProgBlog, Dec 11 2016 08:03PM

It’s interesting to see how progressive rock faces the future. One of my latest gig attendances was for newcomer act ESP launching their debut CD Invisible Din, though the combined pedigree of the performers both on the new album and those playing live hardly warrants the ‘newcomer’ tag. ESP performed an updated symphonic prog rock which acknowledged some of the most influential movers from the first wave of prog but still managed to sound relevant and contemporary, not unlike some of the newer Italian bands, expressive and almost operatic. The stylistic contrast with Lazuli, who I witnessed at London’s Borderline last week could hardly have been greater. Lazuli have been around since 1998 and are well known and respected in their native France and around mainland Europe but have not had very much exposure in the UK, despite wowing crowds at Summers End in 2011 and 2013. Their music falls within the prog sphere but it is closer to the Peter Gabriel end of the spectrum, more akin to world music, especially their take on North African sounds and scales. Somewhat surprisingly given the heavy edge to much of their material and subject matter which includes a message supporting the cause to end violence against women and an indictment of the rise of the right-wing in France, it has an infectious joyfulness. Lazuli first came to my notice when I saw them at the Prog Résiste festival in Belgium in 2014 and it was quite obvious they were not only unique but that they had a devoted following on the continent so I wrote to Prog magazine to tell readers to make sure they went to see them when they next played in the UK. It’s likely that Lazuli will get a live review in the next edition of the magazine but ESP, who did have a Prog Italia journalist and photographer in attendance, have had neither an album nor live review.


Lazuli at The Borderline 5/12/16
Lazuli at The Borderline 5/12/16

From the recent to the beginning

If we accept that the progressive rock genre started in 1969 it’s hardly surprising that, given there have been 46 intervening years, a number of the main protagonists should no longer be with us. The prog world has once more been rocked by the death of one of the most important members of the prog family, Greg Lake, who succumbed to cancer earlier this week.

Lake’s influence can’t be underestimated. As a member of the first incarnation of King Crimson, it could be argued that he was one of the five young men at the vanguard of the movement, the coalescence of a musical idiom which was served fully formed as the LP In the Court of the Crimson King but also, according to music journalists and critics, a perpetrator of excess and pretentiousness, one of a handful of individuals responsible for the downfall of the genre at the end of the 70s. I first heard him on the self-titled ELP debut which I originally picked up because I was interested in Keith Emerson’s career development following the demise of The Nice. Emerson, Lake & Palmer remains one of my favourite albums, where despite my adoration of Emerson’s previous musical vehicle, there’s a noticeable qualitative improvement and cohesiveness on the first ELP album. This can be partly ascribed to the nature of the Nice albums, where The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack (1967) was really psychedelia and Ars Longa Vita Brevis (1968) a mixture of psychedelia and proto-prog; these two albums are entirely studio efforts but suffer from poor production. The subsequent three albums Nice (1969), Five Bridges (1970) and Elegy (1971) all contain a mix of studio and live tracks. Although, in my opinion, Emerson Lake & Palmer is dominated by Emerson, in recognition of the status of the bassist and the drummer, both having come from successful bands, the contribution of Lake and Palmer is essential to the sound and feel of the album. Lake’s crystal clear voice was key to the sound of the first Crimson LP and made ELP far more accessible than The Nice, where Lee Jackson took on main vocal duties. Though all members of the band seemed happy with adaptations of classical pieces I’d always credited Emerson as the main proponent, balanced with the acoustic sensibility of Lake. Take a Pebble ticks all the right boxes for me by virtue of the amazing piano and the ensemble playing and if I’m honest I could live without the solo acoustic sections. Lucky Man is a different kettle of fish, where Emerson’s Moog is simply the icing on a near-perfect song. His experience with King Crimson coupled with reluctance from Emerson and Palmer to get involved meant that record production duties became the responsibility of Lake; the result is a well-balanced sound on the majority of the tracks tough I find The Three Fates a bit muddy. It’s clear that there were personality clashes between Lake and Emerson and initial splits over the direction of Tarkus (1971) seemed quite serious. Fortunately, Lake got on board and the Tarkus suite has become one of my most admired ELP long-form pieces, but there’s a lack of consistency on side two. Trilogy (1972) suffers from a similar fate, where the longer tracks are brilliant but there’s an abundance of shorter, throw-away music.

I suspect the mix of the serious, multi-part compositions and the short, not necessarily progressive rock songs was part of the reason for ELP’s success, where they could attract both the prog crowd and more adventurous rock ‘n’ rollers. I also think that the approach of ELP helped to bridge the gap between popular and classical music, introducing a new generation to the delights of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Bach but also opening our eyes to Copland and Ginastera. Brain Salad Surgery (1973) was a more consistent album but the production was thin and biased towards the treble. The triple live Welcome Back My Friends... (1974) may have been a triumph but the years spent touring, putting on huge shows with equipment unloaded from three articulated lorries, became another stick with which to beat the band as the music industry was changing in their absence; ELP’s excess was in stark contrast to the pared back ideology and sounds of punk. Even I wondered about Lake’s ‘plutonium’ bike mentioned in one of the music papers! All of this meant that the pretentiously-titled Works Vol.1 (1977) was hardly likely to be greeted with open arms by the critics. The band material was good but I thought it was spoiled by Emerson’s predilection for the Yamaha GX-1. I loved his Piano Concerto but much of the writing on the Lake and Palmer sides wasn’t really up to scratch and as a whole, the double LP was a bit like Fragile taken to extreme.

After Works Vol.1 I gave up on ELP, foregoing Works Vol.2 and Love Beach and not realising the three protagonists had toured in 1992 having reformed for Black Moon. The live album recorded at the Royal Albert Hall captures the band back on form and I wish I’d paid more attention to listing magazines at the time. I went to see Greg Lake at the Fairfield Halls in 2005, based on the mooted set list and was very pleasantly surprised. His voice wasn’t as clear as it had been 30 years previously but his band performed admirable versions of ELP and King Crimson numbers.

I finally got to see ELP at the High Voltage festival in 2010 on the 40th anniversary of their debut album which featured prominently. Despite a couple of minor problems they were totally amazing and I’m really pleased to have been there because it turned out to be their last ever gig.

I’m not a fan of the 45rpm single but, like many prog fans, I have a soft spot for Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas – Lake and Sinfield at their concise best with a bit of Prokofiev thrown in. Lake is likely to be remembered for this single more than his contribution to progressive rock but he was there at the beginning of prog and shaped those early years with his choirboy voice, deft bass and acoustic songs. His death marks another major loss to the prog world.




Greg Lake b. 10th November 1947 d. 7th December 2016







By ProgBlog, Nov 13 2016 07:16PM

Imagine a blustery Friday evening in central London at rush hour, spilling out of Great Portland Street tube station and wondering why, in the middle of November, a large crowd had assembled outside the Green Man pub and inside was a heaving mass of people. Somewhere in the throng was Jim Knipe, one of two friends I’d managed to persuade to give an unknown band a try. On the occasion of an England vs Scotland football match, something I’d inconveniently forgotten, it really wasn’t the most sensible place to have chosen for a pub meal before a gig at the nearby 229 The Venue. The football fixture seemed to have fired up a particularly nasty form of nationalism, at least amongst the clientele of the Green Man, so moving on quickly as soon as dinner was completed was the order of the day. The Green Man was the third choice hostelry; first choice The Albany, almost next door, was already fully booked for meals (we decamped there for a beer before moving on to the gig) and the second choice was a large restored Victorian pub with good beer, only I couldn’t find it on Google maps, I couldn’t remember its name (the Mason’s Arms) and I had no idea if it served food (it does). All I knew was that it was normally empty. The food at the Green Man we visited on the junction of Euston and Marylebone Roads, not to be confused with the Green Man, Riding House Street, was served at gastropub prices without the gastropub quality. Not recommended.

Doors to 229 were due to open at 7.30pm so Jim and I made our way across the road at the appointed hour to meet up with the third of the evening’s prog trio, Gina Franchetti. 229 first opened its doors in 1965 as part of the International Students House, a charity providing accommodation for British and overseas students whilst they studied at different Universities in London. The venue has sporadically played host to numerous gigs, awards ceremonies, club nights, weekend festivals and music related events and profits are ploughed back into the charity to help fund scholarship programmes for students from less advantaged countries. It underwent major refurbishment and had a technical overhaul in 2007 and was re-launched as a dedicated entertainment venue with two performance spaces. Unfortunately, Gina was standing in the queue for the larger of the two rooms where Dreadzone (a Big Audio Dynamite spin-off) were due to play and it was only when staff on the door were unable to find my name on the guest list that we realised we were heading to the wrong show; our entertainment was due to be provided by ESP, billed as ‘A Prog Rock Tour de Force’ and the gig was to launch their new album Invisible Din.




First on stage was Yumi Hara, standing in as the support act and who would later take to the stage with the band. Normally a pianist, Hara had recently taken up the harp (think the Jon Anderson-sized harp used on Olias of Sunhillow and Going for the One), performing material from collaborations with Artaud Beats bandmate and ex-Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler. Her songs may have been brief but they were laden with poignancy; an effect enhanced by the delicate tone of her instrument and the oriental scales she used.





ESP is basically a two-man band comprised of guitarist/producer/multi-instrumentalist Tony Lowe and drummer Mark Brzezicki, ably supported with a stellar cast of collaborators. Lowe first came to my attention as the guitarist for the live launch of the 2015 David Cross and Robert Fripp CD Starless Starlight (which Lowe produced) where his understanding and appreciation of one of the most classic and memorable progressive rock melody lines was on display. Along with Cheryl Stringall he’s also the co-founder of Sunn Creative, a socially aware record label which operates on ethical business principles which include a commitment to environmental and social issues, and partners selected like-minded charities such as Action Aid with their ‘Bollocks to Poverty’ campaign. Brzezicki is best known for his work with Big Country, though prog fans will associate him with Procol Harum; he’s well regarded in drum circles and boasts an impressive session CV. These two musicians assembled some great names from the progressive rock scene to play on the album, from prog's early years to the more recent wave, and they all made guest appearances for the concert. Keyboard player Mickey Simmonds joined the project for the live circus because Lowe, who played keyboards on the recording, confined himself to guitar. Simmonds cites some classic prog influences and I recognised his name from Camel’s Harbour of Tears album (1996). Also on stage were bassists Steve Gee and Phil Spalding, each performing roughly half the set; vocalist John Beagley; David Jackson on saxes and flute; Yumi Hara on harp; and David Cross on violin.

From the outset it was obvious that the band were a really tight-knit outfit, playing densely layered lines of largely instrumental prog of the highest order with three lead instruments available at any one time over a solid, busy rhythm section. The keyboard patches were accurate reproductions of 70s analogue sounds but all the instruments were distinct and the whole sound well-balanced in the low-ceiling venue. It was possible to detect influences as varied as early Genesis, post-Gabriel Genesis, UK, and even a little Pawn Hearts-era Van der Graaf Generator; Jim even suggested he heard some 10cc. I’m not inferring the sound was derivative in any way and if I were to suggest a sonic comparison, perhaps because of the use of woodwind instruments, primarily the flute, I’d plump for one of the modern Italian symphonic prog acts.




Half-way through the set, Lowe informed us he wasn’t going to explain the concept behind the album because we could just read the sleeve notes of the CD to find out. I bought the CD from the merchandise stand but didn’t get round to reading the booklet until the following day. A Sunn Creative press release outlines the story and concept behind Invisible Din, where Lowe revealed that “The songs evoke a man’s childhood memory of illness and a ghostly, healing presence of beauty as he ventures into the realms of the astral world. The music and lyrics encompass the yearning we have for that elusive other, the dream partner, crossing the line between reality and fantasy as he ventures into the unknown.”

It’s sometimes unsatisfactory going to a gig without knowing what you’re going to hear, even when the event is billed as a ‘prog rock tour de force’ but it was evident from the first few bars and confirmed by the end of the performance that ESP are the genuine article. The compositions were first class, the playing exemplary and the utilisation of the talents of Davids Cross and Jackson was a stroke of genius. The crowd was fully appreciative of the music and such was the expectation of the band that Prog Italia magazine sent a reporter and photographer to cover the gig; Gina noticed that Claudia (the reporter) was making notes in Italian and spoke to them in Italian at the end of the concert; Federico (the photographer) has shared some photos with band members, including an atmospheric shot of David Jackson in black and white.

So there was no disappointment at the end, instead I’ve got a feeling that symphonic progressive rock has a new standard-bearer. I’ll certainly seek out future ESP shows in London and the South East – long may they continue. Thank you, Tony Lowe, Mark Brzezicki and your amazing collaborators for an evening of wonderful music.




Post Script

I’ve now listened to the album three times and the concept stands up really well. The production adds a Floydian feel to some of the material and the tracks evoke appropriate emotions: sometimes reflective, sometimes elation. The work is remarkably melodic; something that was less noticeable during the live performance, and repeated listening has revealed further layers and previously unnoticed jazzy moments. It’s impossible to choose a favourite track because the album holds together beautifully.

ESP: All symphonic progressive rock fans should buy Invisible Din and make every effort to go to see them on tour.









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